Friday, January 29, 2010

Violating duties to yourself is hard

I'm not big on duty, but I think that people who are would consider this a generally plausible principle:

Conditional Release: If A has a duty to B, B can conditionally release A from that duty by choosing that A act otherwise, rather than fulfill the duty. Then if A acts otherwise and does not fulfill the duty, A has not violated the duty.

Now what happens in the case of a self-regarding duty, where you are both A and B? Then you can choose to act otherwise rather than fulfilling the duty, and when you do it, you haven't violated any duties. So it's pretty hard to violate duties to yourself.

Maybe there are some duties for which Conditional Release doesn't hold. Maybe I have a duty not to kill you, and you can't release me from it. Then you could still get a duty not to commit suicide. And if you can violate duties without making any choices, perhaps by falling asleep at an unfortunate time or forgetting about them, this won't get you off the hook for those duties.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Frege-Geach whiteboard

I have a whiteboard in my office. I've used it three times over the 18 months or so that I've been here. Each time was to draw up the Frege-Geach problem for students.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Do a whale's hip bones have a function?

I think the right answer is 'no'. (So says this evolution website: "These bones resemble those of other mammals, but are only weakly developed in the whale and have no apparent function.") They had a function for whales' ancestors who walked on land in the distant past and needed hip bones for their leg bones to attach to. But lacking legs, whales have no use for hip bones, rendering these structures without function in the present.

This is a problem for evolutionary accounts of function. On these accounts, the function of the whale's hip bones is something like connecting up with the whale's leg bones. That's because evolutionary accounts of function are historical. On such accounts, the selection pressures that caused a particular part to exist are what gives it its function. I'm fine with saying that whale hip bones had the function of connecting with legs in the past, when they were in whale ancestors who had legs. They just don't have it now.

Maybe we could build a better account of function by looking at the way that some part relates to an animal's present interests. This gives many of the same intuitive answers as to what the function of a particular part is, but it deals better with vestigial structures that have lost their function. I don't see any reason why the function of some part needs to connect to the process that produced it -- natural objects that we find can be put to some purpose, and thus acquire a function. If I find a bunch of rocks and use them as ballast in my submarine, their function is to add weight so that the sub will go down, even though that has nothing to do with the process that produced them.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Dolphins Are Smart!

Being a longtime cetacean fan, I'm excited to see these scientists (and a philosopher) saying dolphins are smart enough to have some of the rights we accord to persons. All popular science article warnings apply, but there's a pretty good roundup of their cognitive abilities at the linked article.

Assuming that humans don't screw things up by killing ourselves or the dolphins, I think there'll be a time when humans can engage in much fuller communication with dolphins than currently possible. We'll probably need some really crazy neurotechnology to make this work out, but I think humans will eventually put that together given enough time. When it happens, it'll be one of the coolest things our species has ever done.